2 September 2007
Goodbye, cruel Word
For the first time, I no longer have a copy of Microsoft Word installed on either of my computers. That’s some change. I wrote my first two books, and many hundreds of articles, in Word. But I’m writing my third book in an inexpensive yet wonderful piece of Mac-only software written by a single person instead of a “business unit” at Redmond. Scoured of Word, my computers feel clean, refreshed, relieved of a hideous and malign burden. How did it come to this?
I remember when Word was all clean and sci-fi and inspiring, on the sharp monochrome screens of late-1980s and early-1990s Macs. When I was at university, hardly anyone owned a computer. We wrote our final dissertations on Mac Classics running Word in the college Computer Room. Afterwards, when I began to write for newspapers, the first electronic writing tool I owned was one of these:
For some reason the fact that this is called an Elektrische Schreibmaschine in German makes me feel all nostalgic for the ultrasmooth Kraftwerk future it seems I was living back then without even realising it, tapping out theatre reviews on a six-line green LCD (not even backlit), and then watching the typewriter daisywheel chatter back and forth to print a hard copy, that I would then take to the library and send to the TLS or the Independent, via a facsimile machine, at 10p per page.
After a while I was able to buy a black-and-white PowerBook 520 running Word 5:
Screenshot: Dwayne J Perry
Many people agree that revision 5.1a, specifically, was the best version of Word that Microsoft has ever shipped, combining utility and minimalist elegance with reliability. Sadly for me, although it wasn’t strictly necessary, after a few years and a colour Performa I “upgraded” to Word 98, and somehow the magic was gone. Yes, I turned off all the crappy lurid toolbars and tried to make the compositional space as simple as possible, but by this time Word was stuffed with all kinds of “features” that let you print a pie-chart on the back of a million envelopes or publish your cookery graphs to your “world wide web home-page”, and it already felt to me that Word was only grudgingly letting me write nothing but, you know, words. Trigger Happy got out of Word 98 and onto the streets, but not without routine crashes and the occasional catastrophic loss of a few finely honed paragraphs.
I was still somehow brainwashed, though, as perhaps many people still are today, into believing that Word was the “serious” word-processor: the professional tool for anyone who did heavy lifting with language. Part of the reason for Microsoft’s success in this propaganda trick, I think, was its brilliant choice of file-name extension. Think about it: .doc. That means “document”. A .doc just is a document, right? And a document has to be a .doc. Stands to reason. Anything else would look amateurish. If they had called their files .mwd or something, we might have all jumped ship a lot sooner.
Anyway, through inertia, through not even thinking about whether alternatives existed, I continued to stick with Word. And then, like a cunning crack dealer, Microsoft threw me a freebie twist that had me hooked anew. It was Live Word Count, which (IIRC) appeared in Word v. X.
Ah, Live Word Count. When pretty much everything you write has a word-limit attached, and you realise after long and tragic experience that exceeding that limit will not cause the editor to expand the space available to you in tribute to your genius but will instead cause the sub-editors unerringly to home in precisely on the bits that must not be cut if the article is still to make any sense and cut them, then you need to know at every stage how much you have written, and how much you have left to go. With Live Word Count, there was no longer any need to hit a key combination every 10 seconds to check the word-count (which was often a way of procrastinating). The word count was permanently right there in the toolbar, updating as you typed. It was a beautiful thing, a real boon to anyone who wrote to predetermined length. So I couldn’t leave Word now, could I?
(In the mean time, I also had one of these. It was for filing articles while travelling, but I often preferred to write on that machine, with its small monochrome LCD, even when my desktop or laptop Mac was available. So something, some unexamined preference, was percolating in my mind. Eventually the Psion broke, and nothing as good has replaced it as an ultramobile writing tool. So much for progress.)
Anyway, a few more years, and eventually Unspeak got out of Word v. X on my PowerMac G5 and on to the streets, but not without routine crashes and the occasional catastrophic loss of a few finely honed paragraphs. (Sound familiar?) And then I began to feel a vague dissatisfaction. My eye started roving. I would check out the other word-processors walking down the street, observing their smooth lines and lithe swing, imagining what it would be like to be with them instead.
Crucially, Live Word Count became available in a range of other programs. (Amazingly, though, it seems that PC users did not get a live word count from Microsoft until Word 2007.) Mac users can now get it pretty much anywhere. The guitar-rocking genius at Transparent Head even hacked me up a version of TextEdit that had a live word count in a floating window.
The second crucial thing was an answer to prayers I hadn’t even known I was praying. It was Full-Screen Mode, which I first discovered in WriteRoom.1 WriteRoom’s slogan is “distraction-free writing”, and it does just what it says on the tin. Your entire screen is blacked out, except for the text you are working on. I now use WriteRoom for all my journalism. When I’m working, the screen of my MacBook looks like this:
Pretty old-skool, huh? It’s perfect: far less temptation to switch to a browser window, much better concentration on the text in front of you. WriteRoom has a “typewriter-scrolling mode”, so that the line you are typing is always centred in the screen, not forever threatening to drop off the bottom, and what you have already written scrolls rapidly up off the top of the screen, dissuading you from idly rereading it. It’s a bit like the endless roll of typewriter paper on which Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road.
So WriteRoom allows me to turn my whizzy modern computer into the nearest equivalent possible (allowing for modern conveniences like backup to the internet and so on) to my old Brother typewriter and its six-line LCD. The focus is on the words and nothing else. Except for that line you can just make out at the bottom left of the screen. That’s the Live Word Count.
Microsoft Word still uses the metaphor of the page, the computer screen that imitates a blank, bounded sheet of physical paper. For me, this is outdated and unimaginative. It has become a barrier rather than a window. And there is always the distraction of changing font and line-spacing, jumping ahead too quickly to imagining the text as a visual, physical product instead of a process, a fluid semantic interplay. Instead, turning my MacBook into a kind of replica 1980s IBM machine, with the words glowing and hovering in an interstellar void, is liberating: as though I am composing the Platonic ideal of a text that might eventually take many different forms.
Through WriteRoom I then discovered Scrivener, a more sophisticated program with excellent features for managing very large documents or document collections: like a book. I couldn’t have written Unspeak, with its many hundreds of footnotes, in WriteRoom; but I could have in Scrivener. I’m writing my next book in Scrivener, and a significant part of my enjoyment of the process is that I’m not doing it in Word, so somehow it doesn’t feel so much like cubicular, fluorescent-lit work. And it can also do Platonic simplicity. When working on a chapter, I set Scrivener up to give me exactly the same full-screen orange-on-black view as my WriteRoom environment above, with one exception: the Live Word Count doesn’t appear unless you mouse over the bottom of the screen. Which is perfect for writing a book, where length is not crucial on a paragraph-to-paragraph basis, and it eliminates the last possible distraction from your mindworld.
And imagine trying the following with Microsoft – when I first used Scrivener I was a bit irritated that the cursor was a thin blinking line, which I found interfered with my new-found writing Zen. So I posted on the programmer’s forum saying could we please maybe have the same square, non-blinking block cursor as you get in WriteRoom? With the next beta, he had done it. That’s customer service.2
Am I not worried that WriteRoom and Scrivener, delightful though they are, are small products from tiny outfits, not “supported” by the corporate might of a large company such as Microsoft? No, I’m not. Because actually my writing is now more secure. Instead of a bloated proprietary file format like .doc, both programs use accessible formats – .txt, .xml, .rtf3 – that (as far as one can predict these things) will be readable forever. My new book is one big “project” in Scrivener, but under the hood each chapter is a universally accessible .rtf file, which can be opened and used in a multitude of other programs.
The last question is one of interoperability, and on first sight it’s a serious one. Surely if everyone else is using Microsoft Word and we are sending documents back and forth to each other, then I need to use Microsoft Word too? I imagine that kind of reasoning sells the majority of new copies. But for me it doesn’t matter at all. If I just need to read a Word document, I can open it in pretty much any Mac program. If I need to exchange files back and forth using comments or Track Changes, I can do that through Google Apps or Pages. If someone really insists on sending me a Word document so festooned with all its formatting “features”, tables, graphics, and so on that it doesn’t work in another program, I am just likely to respond: What the fuck?
So that’s how it is now. I write within the pure, glowing universes of Scrivener and WriteRoom. I send articles to the Guardian as plain-text rather than .doc. I am confident that I will be able to open those articles and the chapters of my book again, if I want to, in 30 years’ time. And now a 1000-word review weighs 4K instead of 30K. I weep at all the innocent electrons I wastefully killed over the years, sending those massive, lumbering Word documents through the internet. I apologise for my particle profligacy. I have learned my lesson. Goodbye, cruel Word.4
- WriteRoom is Mac-only, but PC users can try a similar experience with JDarkRoom. ↩
- As Scrivener’s creator relates, he emailed Jesse Grosjean, Writeroom’s author, wondering how he did the block-cursor thing; very generously, Grosjean just gave him the code, and even recommends Scrivener on his own website. ↩
- RTF is actually proprietary, originally developed by DEC and now owned by Microsoft, but it’s so widespread now that (fingers crossed) they won’t be able to break it. ↩
- Update 15/08/2011: Scrivener for Windows is now in beta. The best PC equivalent of Writeroom is probably the excellent Q10. This essay now also appears in Mauk & Metz (eds.), The Composition of Everyday Life. ↩